Online Reputation Management, and the accompanying Issue Resolution Process seems to be a very hot topic of late. There is much debate about the approaches to use in varied situations. That said, I thought I'd take a stab at trying to add some clarity to the process by creating a model to guide the decision making process. As it happens, I was so impressed with SEOMoz's How to Handle a Google Penalty flowchart, that it occurred perhaps one should also be created in this situation … voila!

As a quick disclaimer, this flowchart is intended to be a starting point, and in no way covers all possible situations, nor will it necessarily be the ideal solution for the situations mentioned.

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Online Reputation Management - Issue Resolution Flowchart
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Step Descriptions:

1) Set-up Google Alerts :
Utilizing Google Alerts or an alternative (eg. Swamii, or Yahoo Alerts) is a fundamental principle in Online Reputation Management. You can only react to a problem if you know it exists, and you need to act fast to ensure that it doesn't get blown out of proportion. For a great article on establishing alerts, Lee Odden from TopRankBlog has a very informative post here.

2) Notice the Negative Mention:
Thanks to the pre-established alerts, you should receive an email alerting you to each mention of the terms you defined. Read each one to ensure that you are alerted quickly when negative mentions occur.

3) Decision: Is there merit to the claim:
This is generally a simple assessment, although not in all cases. If no, then your actions need to be different then if there is merit to the claim, and it may harm your firm's reputation.

4) Prioritize Sites/Postings to respond to in order of popularity:
Its my personal belief that each and every blog/forum posting has the potential to go viral, if the content of the posting has merit … no matter how big or small. Obviously probabilities increase with the size and readership of the blog/forum however. I'd also argue that probabilities of just such a posting going viral increase with the size of the firm being targeted … think Walmart's Facebook Fiasco, Dell Hell, or Microsoft Vista. That said, negative mentions need to be addressed in real time to prevent/reduce the probability that others will jump on the bandwagon, and blow the issue out of proportion. If its just one site, then the solution is more simple. Once others in the blogosphere begin to write about it, then its a matter of prioritization. Address the initial blogger/forum posting first, then respond in order of site popularity (see point 5 below).

5) Check Site Popularity:
A number of rough methods exist for checking the relative popularity of web sites. Perhaps the quickest and easiest however is Alexa. Another technique is to look at the ranking within Technorati . Keep in mind, the lower a Ranking score, the more popular the site.

6) Privately Refute Claim, Provide Proof, Ask for Formal Recant, and Help Craft Recant:
This is a real opportunity! Chances are, if one person misunderstands a product/company, that many do. Accordingly, its an opportunity to understand where communications broke down and how to correct them. Its also an opportunity to turn an adversary into a advocate. In order to have any hope of transitioning this individual into an advocate however, you need to listen very carefully, acknowledge that you have heard the individual, and then explain the misunderstanding and show proof making certain not to cast blaim. In fact, you may want to consider suggesting it was a company communication issue. Ensure that the individual is able to save face, or you'll have almost no chance of success. This is your opportunity to help brainstorm ideas about how a recant might be structured. Lastly, ensure that the individual is thanked for bringing this matter to your attention so that solutions could be devised.

7) Provide a Response in a Clear and Friendly Manner:
While the person's claim may have merit, this is likewise an opportunity in many cases. People want to be heard, and they want to know that they are dealing with real living breathing people rather than corporate beaurocracy. What better way to do this than to speak to their concerns in a warm and friendly manner … person to person. If they know that their opinion matters, and that your firm is working to address the issue, then perhaps they'll come to the conclusion that they're still better dealing with your company than your competitors (the devil they don't know). It may take some negotiation, but its an opportunity in many cases none-the-less. Perhaps, just maybe, they'll even become (dare I say it) … an advocate.

My personal preference is to attempt to respond on the blog/forum in question. Responses on your own blog (before the issue gets big) aren't necessarily suggested yet as they may draw attention to your firm's weaknesses on your own site. See also if you can chat offline with the person, though be careful to record the conversation.

8 ) Decision: Does the Thread Continue?:
If no, then let it be. If the person is pleased with the outcome of the discussion/negotiations, then perhaps they'll blog about it in a positive light, in which case you've been successful in finding a new advocate. Let it be.

If yes, then depending on who continues the thread, the actions are likely to differ.

9) Does the Blogger Recant?:
If the blogger does not recant, despite definitive proof being provided, then consider legal action. This begins to fall into the realm if Libel.

If yes, thank the blogger via comments (or possibly a guest blog) for aiding in finding a way to improve the company's communications strategy. They save face, and your company emerges as a caring and responsive organization.

10) Engage Legal Counsel:
This cannot be recommended in all situations as it will be a function of scope of the problem, severity of the claim, and perceptions of David versus Goliath. In cases where definitive proof is blatantly disregarded though, legal counsel may prove the best option.

13) Decision: Is it the Same Blogger or Others Who Continue the Thread?:
If the same blogger, and they're not responding positively to your attempts to communicate/negotiate, then do not engage in a shouting match. If the issue dies there, good. If the issue is then picked up and blogged about by others, you've then got another opportunity to be heard, and to convey your point of view.

14, 16) Decision: Is the Tone of the Others Genuine or Bandwagon Bashing?:
If genuine, respond to each stream of concerns separately. Look for win-win scenarios, and opportunities to create more advocates. Avoid responding too many times to the same individual … it could quickly become a full time job. Try to use this as a learning experience in terms of improving your company, its products or services … potential clients are telling you exactly what they want. This might be a good opportunity to remind them of the price/quality trade-off.

14, 15, 17, 18) If mostly 'bandwagon bashers', take the time to respond only to those who appear genuinely concerned (depending on numbers, likely not individually). Eventually, the irrational will see the pattern, and behave more appropriately.

In conclusion, again, this flowchart is not intended to be a finished product, but rather a work in progress. Accordingly, leave your thoughts and comments, and we'll evolve it.